Regardless of your conceptual beliefs, you can realise the Self
*Note that ‘seeing directly for oneself’ means only to Be That
Q. Why does Advaita Vedanta more commonly refer to ‘Self’ rather than ‘no-self’?
Tom: it is because the Non-Dual Reality that we Truly Are is only discovered when we turn towards the sense of ‘I’ or ‘I AM’, otherwise known as ‘Self’. This is the single factor that leads to realisation.
The language of the teaching is there to facilitate the method of discovery of the Self that we truly are, and this discovery is Total Liberation.
By stating that we are the Self, we are encouraged to discover this for our self in our own experience, and so turn our attention selfwards, ie. towards the Subject or ‘I AM’. When that Self that we are is discovered, only then do notions of Self or no-self themselves become obsolete.
For those who are interested this is explained in detail in the book The Path of Sri Ramana – Part 1, especially in Chapter 8
Here are 2 verses from Sri Ramana Maharshi (taken from the text Guru Vachaka Kovai):
393.One who has wisely chosen the straight path
Of self-enquiry can never go astray;
For like the bright, clear Sun, the Self
Reveals itself direct to whoso
Turns towards it.
391. Those who do not dive into the Heart
And there confront the Self in the five sheaths hid
Are only students answering out of books
Clever questions raised by books,
And not true seekers of the Self.
Many more verses like this can be found here.
Here in this article we will explore the Buddhist teachings and contrast them to Vedanta or ‘Hindu-style’ teachings. We will look at notions of self and no-self, nirvana and self-realisation, and look at the earliest complete Buddhist teachings ie. as recorded in the Pali Suttas (Sutta is a Pali word meaning ‘thread’ and refers to a ‘string of verses’, ie. a text; Sutra is the equivalent word in Sanskrit)
Some people think that the teachings of the Buddha point in some fundamental way to something different to teachings of ‘Hinduism’ (Sanatana Dharma) and Vedanta. Most of these people are either only approaching the teachings in an intellectual way or are attached to a particular conceptual view; or perhaps they have not made a deep study of the teachings, or perhaps they have not developed a deeper insight into the teachings for themselves.
Let us see why this is the case, as if one reads the early recorded teachings of the Buddha for oneself, clarity on this issue arises:
The Unborn, the Unmanifest, the Uncreated, the Unconditioned
A closer reading of the Buddhist texts reveals that the Buddha did actually acknowledge in many places the existence of what in Vedanta would be called ‘The Self’ (Sanskrit: Atman) and what others may even call God. Here is just one example from the Nibbana Sutta verse 3 (Udana 8.3), which is from the Pali Canon:
There is, bhikkhus [monks], that which is unborn, that which is unmanifest [or has not come into being], that which is not fabricated/created, that which is unconditioned.
If there were not, bhikhus, that which is unborn, that which is unmanifest, that which is not fabricated/created, that which is unconditioned, there would not be escape from that which is born, from that which is manifest, from that which is fabricated/created, from that which is conditioned – that therefore would not have been clearly known/experienced/seen.
But because, bhikhus, there is indeed that which is unborn, that which is unmanifest, that which is not fabricated/created, that which is unconditioned, therefore escape from that which is born, from that which is manifest, from that which is fabricated, from that which is conditioned, is [or can be] clearly known/experienced/seen.
We can clearly see that the Buddha is categorically stating that there is something that is beyond birth and creation, beyond manifestation and that which is conditioned (ie. all objects).
He then goes on to sate that only because there is such a thing as this Unborn is it possible for liberation to occur. The Buddha even states that without the existence of ‘that which is unborn’ liberation would not be possible.
Negating vs affirming language
Note that the Buddha characteristically uses negating language – ie. NOT born, NOT manifest, NOT created, etc, rather than the combination of both negating and affirming language often used in the vedic literature.
I hope you will see that this is clearly analogous to descriptions of the Self in Vedic literature which is described as being that which is Unborn, Unmanifest, Unconditioned, etc.
Please note that the above verse and following verses are taken from the Pali canon which represents the earliest complete recorded teachings of the Buddha (rather that the writings of later schools).
Please also note that the word Nibbana is the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit word Nirvana (sometimes spelt Nirbana), which is a word that is also used in pre-Buddhist Vedic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita as a synonym for liberation. This means that the Buddha chose to use the same word for liberation that the Vedic texts also used.
‘No Self’ means no ego or no Jiva, NOT no Brahman/Unborn principle
So what does the word ‘Nirvana’ mean? It literally means extinguishment or annihilation or ‘blown out’ (like extinguishing or blowing out a flame).
Why is this word used in both ‘Hinduism’ and Buddhism (and Jainism too) as a synonym for liberation? It is because in all these traditions, it is accepted that liberation is simply destruction or extinguishment of the ego-self, which is illusory or unreal. So when ‘no-self’ is proclaimed in Buddhism, it is only the denial of the Jiva (apparently separate self) or ego-illusion.
In Vedanta this is also known as manonasa or destruction (extinguishment) of mind (manas = mind; nasa = destruction or anihiliation). We will see later that the Buddha also conceived of liberation in the same way – ie. destruction of the thinking and desiring mind.
Anatman (Anatta in pali) vs Atman
The Sanskrit word atman means self, and anatman means not-self or no-self. The Pali equivalent of anatman is anatta.
The Buddha points to various phenomenal arisings and points out that in none of these can a self be found and that all of these phenomenal arisings are anatman or ‘not-self’. An example of this is the Buddhist teaching of the five skandas, which is clearly analogous to the Vedic teaching of the five koshas. In both these teachings it is pointed out that these five skandas or five koshas are not-self, meaning no self can be found in them.
It should be clear that he Buddha is not saying there is no Unborn Principle (quite the opposite as we can see from the Nibbana Sutta verse 3 above), but that the phenomenal appearance of a separate self (Jiva in Sanskrit) or ego is illusory and that only by coming into the Unborn we can attain liberation – see the next section for more on this as well as how to do this for oneself.
The Deathless – how to attain Nirvana & Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teachings
Earlier we saw how the Buddha referred to what called the Unborn, the Unmanifest, the Unfabricated. Elsewhere he referred to the same Unborn as ‘the Deathless’. See here for an example of this – in this post I also go more into the actual methodology of liberation as proposed by the Buddha and show how it is essentially the same method taught by Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi.
The Unmanifest or Nirguna Brahman
In Vedanta teachings, two forms of Ultimate Reality or Brahman are spoken of: the manifest or saguna Brahman and the unmanifest or nirguna Brahman (sa = with; nir = without; guna = qualities).
According to Vedanta, in truth there is only one form of Brahman – the unmanifest or Nirguna Brahman, but is spoken of as being two purely for purposes of teaching. This Nirguna Brahman, which has no qualities that can be described in words and has no qualities that can be perceived by the senses, this nirguna Brahman is the only True Reality, and realisation of this Truth is tantamount to liberation.
The manifest or Saguna Brahman refers to the apparent world of phenomenal appearances and according to Vedanta these do not actually exist and are illusory. The Vedanta teachings encourage us to turn away from objective phenomena towards the Subject-Self which is then revealed to be Nirguna Brahman.
Unsurprisingly we see exactly the same teaching in the Buddhist Pali Suttas time and time again.
Extinguishing the Fire of Egotism
For example in the Fire Sermon, which was said to be the third sermon the Buddha gave, the Buddha explains that everything that we can perceive and imagine is just egotism which he likens to a flame or fire. It then makes sense that Nirvana is extinguishment of this flame or fire of egotism. He encourages us to ‘become disgusted’ with the various phenomenal arisings and turn away from them, and it is in this way liberation or nirvana, which is the end of egotism and suffering, occurs.
In Nirvana there is the cessation of all phenomenal appearances
How does the Buddha describe Nibbana? Where better to look than the Nibbana Sutta that was quoted above? Here is verse 1 (Udana 8.1):
There is, bhikkhus, that Base where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air…neither this world nor another world nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkhus, I say there is no coming, no going, no staying, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not movable, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering.
We can see from the last phrase ‘just this is the end of suffering’ that the Buddha is describing Nirvana (which he defines as the end of suffering, and which is generally defined as the end of suffering) or what is Vedanta would be called The Self (Atman).
In his description the Buddha is also explaining that in Nirvana ‘there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air…‘, ie. by negating the appearance of the four classical elements he is stating that in nirvana there are no phenomenal arisings whatsoever. He continues this theme by stating ‘there is neither this world, not another world…neither sun nor moon… no coming, no going…‘
The ‘Unmoving’, that which requires ‘no support’, the ‘Unaffected’
The Buddha then goes on to describe what in Vedanta would be called the Self – the Buddha states it is ‘…not moveable, it has no support‘. In Vedanta it would be said to be immovable or unchanging (that which moves can change, that which doesn’t move does not change) and self-shining, meaning it supports itself. In Vedanta, the word ‘ananda’ which means happiness or bliss means the cessation of suffering. Hopefully it is fairly clear that the teachings are pointing to the same basic thing!
In verse two of the same Nibbana Sutta (Udana 8.2) The Buddha speaks of ‘the Unaffected‘, which is clearly another name for the Vedic notion of Self, by which craving and all phenomenal appearance (Maya in vedanta) is ended. Every phenomenal appearance is within the realm of ‘the affected’, so what is this ‘unaffected’ but the True Self?:
It’s hard to see the Unaffected,
for the Truth isn’t easily seen.
Craving is pierced
in one who knows;
For one who sees,
there is nothing.
In liberation there are no thoughts or desires
As we have already quoted from verse 3 at the top of the post, let us proceed to verse 4. In verse 4 of the Nibbana Sutta the Buddha explains that one who has not found the ‘Unaffected’ (ie. the True Self) remains dependent (on phenomenal objects) and so ‘wavers’. This wavering refers to the movements of the mind, ie. what we would call thoughts and desires. Here is verse 4 (Udana 8.4):
One who is dependent has wavering. One who is independent has no wavering. There being no wavering, there is calm. There being calm, there is no desire. There being no desire, there is no coming or going. There being no coming or going, there is no passing away or arising. There being no passing away or arising, there is neither a here nor a there nor a between-the-two. This, just this, is the end of suffering.
See how Sri Ramana Maharshi explains this here.
Cessation of time and space in Liberation
In the above verse 4 the reference to ‘there being no passing away or arising’ not only indicates no arising phenomena in liberation, but also the cessation of time itself. Similarly the reference to ‘there is neither a here nor a there nor a between-the-two’ refers to the cessation of perception of space.
We can see that the teachings are referring to what in Vedanta is known as ‘non-duality’, or advaita, Oneness beyond the illusions of ego, separation, time and space
See this described here in Vedanta teachings.
The ‘Stainless’, the ‘Sorrowless’, the ‘Blissful’
In verse 5, the final verse of this Nibbana Sutta, the Buddha states the following, continuing the theme of the need to efface all desires, wants and cravings. Note how he refers to ‘stainless’ and ‘sorrowless’ and ‘blissful’ – could be be referring to what in Vedanta would be called the Self? I think so!:
The sorrows, lamentations,
the many kinds of suffering in the world,
exist dependent on something dear.
They don’t exist
when there’s nothing dear.
And thus blissful & sorrowless
are those for whom nothing
in the world is dear anywhere.
So one who aspires
to be stainless & sorrowless
shouldn’t make anything
in the world dear
See how Sri Ramana Maharshi similarly describes the way to liberation here.
Some concluding remarks
I have only touched upon one Sutta here in any detail. If you read the Pali canon for yourself you will find countless references like these, eg. to the Unborn and the Deathless, again and again. You will also see references to the need to turn away from objective phenomena towards that which is unborn. You will also see references to the cessation of all arising phenomena. Again and again these references are made.
Surely the Buddha and Vedanta teachings are pointing to the same thing in their own way?
I hope you found this post of use. I have written it rather hastily in one quick sitting so apologies for any spelling or grammatical or other errors.
Namaste and best wishes!
Qestioner: Why do you say that non-duality means ‘there is only you’? For me it makes more sense to say ‘there is no you’?
Tom: Yes, many people say it the way you do, but there is a specific reason why it is said in the traditional scriptures that ‘only I exist ‘ or ‘only you exist’ as opposed to ‘there is no I’ or ‘there is no you’.
The ‘I’ or ‘I AM’ is being pointed out as indicating the reality.
Why is this?
It is because only when we turn towards the ‘I Am’ or the Subject can the non-dual reality be intuited. Otherwise, as you say, the knowledge remains only on the conceptual level for the ego-mind. This is more fully explained in Chapter 8 of The Path of Sri Ramana.
I also explain this more here.
Nonduality means that only you exist.
And I am not speaking of the ‘body-mind’, but That which cannot be put into words, That which you truly are.
Why did ignorance arise? Why is there maya or illusion at all? Why do we suffer if we are really the Self? What does Advaita Vedanta say about this? What was Sri Ramana Maharshi’s view? What does Tom think about this? The Law of attraction will also be mentioned and we will also hear a story from the Buddha about this…
Questioner: Tom, what is your view on some of the Neo-Advaitists who do not seem to agree that there is a Self? All I hear from them is ‘there is only what is; there is no self’?
Tom: If you find these types of teaching helpful, meaning if they provide you with some kind of ease/happiness/peace/fulfilment/a sense of freedom, then that is good, and in that case I encourage you to engage with them as there is likely to be something of value there for you.
However my sense is that for the most part they are not truly liberating teachings but are predominantly spoken of from the mental/intellectual level. But what do I know! It is for you to decide what is right for you. What do you think?
Questioner: I’ll be totally honest with you. I can find some peace of mind with many ‘spiritual’ teachings. For instance I sometimes envy my Christian friends who seem so sure they will be spending eternity in heaven, but I left Catholicism and I can never believe that again. With Buddhism and nonduality I see different views within each, some saying there is a self, others denying self.
For me I can navigate life somewhat with some peace and happiness, but there always seems to be the ultimate fear of death no matter what. The neo-Advaitists say they have conquered death because they’ve died already, so to speak. But isn’t that throwing the baby out with the bathwater? So many contradictions.
In Buddhism some say the ‘self’ reincarnates, some, like Zen say there is no such thing. For Ramana is the Self immortal? What Self is there after death? Is it just silent and empty? You say it is found in deep sleep. But deep sleep is still ‘on this side’, in life. It is not the same as death. How can one know death while alive? How is one certain I AM is not also impermanent? Isn’t Ramana’s Self also an objectification? Like I doubt the truth of my Christian friends’ heaven, I always doubt that Self.
Tom: Yes, I had all these same doubts as you. My idea was to keep on searching until I found something that gave me all the answers I was looking for. The problem is that you will not find such a thing! There are always unanswered questions and problems with all spiritual systems and teachings on the conceptual level if you are intellectually probing/questioning enough.
However for me what then happened is that I unexpectedly fell in love with Sri Ramana Maharshi, and started to develop faith in his teachings (even though I perceived many ‘flaws’ and problems with his teachings). However, it was following his teachings with faith and love and devotion, despite the apparent problems with the teachings, that allowed all my doubts and questions to be answered and resolved so that now none remain. So this is what I share now.